Eliza worked in a Christmas shop, the kind that pops up during the latter days of October and hangs around till the January sales.
I stepped in for some wrapping paper and received the warmest grin I've ever seen. She exuded the heat of a cup of cocoa.
She left her counter to assist me. I admitted to her that I was no good at gift wrapping. She offered to teach me.
We dated for most of November and touched on December. Every time we met she would be wearing the same bright red tights.
I loved the way there were always bits of tinsel on her seasonal jumpers, silver on green usually. What I didn't love was how twee she got on the countdown to the big day. It was like the twelve days of Christmas except with more exacting standards and a sweet-tempered impatience.
'Always heavy baubles at the bottom of the tree,' she used to tell me, 'Pinecones too. And if those ties don't work, don't come crying to me. I already suggested the ones at work but you said no.'
The Christmas chatter could be cute but it never stopped. Eventually she gave me a black Santa hat with BAH HUMBUG on it.
Eliza seemed desperate to convince me of some seasonal magic within her. Beforehand she had never really mentioned her parents and I just assumed that it was a touchy subject, but then she started dropping hint after hint about her father. He was fat, jovial, had a big white beard, sang songs, had a sweet way with children.
'You seriously expect me to believe he's Father Christmas?' I blurted out one day.
She looked hurt but didn't play this down.
I asked when it would be possible to meet this great man. She insisted that he was far too busy at the moment but maybe in January. We would have to go out and meet him, of course, he would be dog-tired by then.
It clearly wasn't a joke, it was a genuine delusion. I felt betrayed, annoyed and a little reckless in how I spoke about it. We had long arguments from the ninth day of Christmas onwards, about my cynicism, her obsession.
We broke up the week before her father's big workday.
And that would have been that, just a sad ridiculous tale to tell in pubs with all the other Grinches.
By October this year I had all but got over Eliza and then I saw a news story on TV. There was a letter writer in Canada claiming to answer children's letters to Santa on her father's behalf. I couldn't let it slide. I went out to Colorado.
Her name was Bea and she was a little over ten years older than Eliza. She wore frumpy clothing with muted colours but she had the same smile. The exact same inviting open fire grin.
'I do so love interviews,' Bea told me, 'Though, heaven forbid, it slows down my work.'
I asked about the letter writing.
'Dad would so love to get on with it himself but he's a busy fellow obviously.'
I didn't like her effected speech, it seemed put on to me, something for these interviewers she was supposedly entertaining all the time. I pressed her on the point: did she pick this curious way of speaking from her father?
'Yes. Santa loves precision in all things. Including language.'
I asked her if she meant Nicholas. Santa meant Saint and who would refer to their father as that?
'He's used to have so many names,' Bea replied, 'Incidentally, he loves it when people call him Nick.'
I asked her if she would be seeing Nick before Christmas?
'Probably not. He only ever drops off in places during the eve. He usually calls though.'
Would she mind calling Nick now then?
Bea gave me a flustered look: 'He'll be busy. He prefers evening calls and doesn't like to talk to strangers.'
I point out how she said that there is at least one eve when he won't be making the call.
'Why wouldn't he? There's a lot of space between drop-off points sometimes. He tends to ring then, even on the sleigh.'
I ask her about her religion. Does she go to church?
And would she agree that the day is more about Our Lord than one of his more reverent servants?
Then where were the crosses in her office? Why was there only the Saturnalia tree and the Coca Cola red hat? Surely her father wouldn't really wear such a thing, would he?
Bea folded her arms. 'He wears what he likes. Now would you mind if we talk about my letter-writing?'
I apologised, asked her how many letters she answered in a day.
'Somewhere between thirty and forty usually.'
Did the children ever reply?
Then didn't she feel horrible about lying to them?
'I'm not lying, young man. I have my father's permission.'
That doesn't mean that what you're doing isn't lying. You are actively deceiving children who do not know any better. Most of them seriously believe that they are in correspondence with the real Santa Claus.
'And they are.'
I dispute this.
'Forgive me for saying,' Bea said, 'But it seems like you don't believe, young man.'
I admitted to not believing a lot of things but I could believe in a person deliberately misleading youth, prolonging their innocence to the point of arrested development.
'I think this interview is over, dear,' Bea replied.
I agreed. I couldn't stand being in the same room as that genial expression any longer. That being said: 'Do you know Eliza?'
Bea looked bemused.
'She must have been one of Old Nick's bastards then.'
'Goodbye, young man.'
Originally I thought, if the story was to go anywhere, it would surely need to broaden into a generalised view of people with Christmas-based delusions. I was sure that I would find more Santas labouring under a Miracle on 34th Street misconception, Christs reborn or even men who insisted that reindeer could fly.
I did find an elf. Nora of Brisbane, Australia.
'I was dropped off here for a very special mission,' she told me at a mall cafe.
And what mission was that?
I almost rolled my eyes. I asked her if, by any chance, they were low on Christmas spirit?
Nora nodded. 'Though personally I think it was to get me out of his white curly hair.'
I had to laugh at this. The first thing I noticed about Nora was her obvious cheeky sense of humour. She was clearly well-aware of all the nonsense she was spewing. She was in her mid-twenties at earliest, looked more like a grotto Santa helper than an actual fairy. That being said, the ears were bright red and naturally pointed at the top.
So didn't Father Christmas like her then?
'He finds me...frustrating.'
She gave me a look. 'Ever seen that Will Ferrell film?'
'Height. Half-breed. All that stuff except for the blissful naivety.'
So was that another reason? The fact that she wasn't in tune with the rest of... Elfkind?
Nora shrugged. 'There's a reason why you don't see many teens in the workshop.'
How long had she been here on her special mission?
'Just under a year now.'
Had she approached her family yet?
'Too late. The parents divorced. Irreconcilable differences.'
She genuinely looked hurt by this. For the first time I had an inkling that this wasn't a joke for her. I almost felt sorry.
So why hadn't the big man been to pick her up yet?
'Like I said, I don't think he wants me back.'
Nora had mentioned something in passing, something that you wouldn't think as ever being a mere thought: she described herself as a half-breed.
Did she know her human parentage?
She barely blinked. 'Three guesses.'
This cinched it for me: I was now writing about a very particular group of holiday delusionals.
Wasn't there a Mrs Claus?
We despaired. A promiscuous saint.
So the old man did have bastards. I kind of wanted to believe her now; the one thing I couldn't stand about Santa was how faultless he was. All that selfless gift-giving had to be a way of redressing a past.
I asked her what she was doing now.
Nora straightened up. 'I have a job.'
She did. A mall Santa helper. She had just finished a shift when we met for the interview. When the green cap fits...
Nevertheless what did she do the rest of the year? Three other seasons and not much call for elfin women.
She shrugged. 'I'm here and there.'
I asked her how she felt about Christmas now, all things considered.
'I still like it well enough,' she said, 'Parts of it. The kids mostly. The songs drive me insane though.'
I agreed. The Little Drummer Boy had been following me all around the world.
'I put in earphones now so I can listen to something else during the day.'
I asked her what her favourite music genre was.
I was shocked.
'What can I say? I'm a Marley girl.'
I love Reggae. I love Marley.
We talked again the following morning. Seeing how vulnerable encroaching sunlight makes people, I asked her the hard questions again.
'Are you really an elf?'
'In a manner of speaking.'
'Are you really Santa's daughter?'
'That's what I was told.'
'Is Santa real?'
'Now that would be telling, wouldn't it?'
'How many other daughters are there?'
This gave her pause for thought. I leant in closer to hear her answer.
'I'm not sure.'
'Have you ever heard of Bea?'
And I realised that she was a nice girl. For all of her obvious shortcomings, she was still angelic.
I had to pull away right then, had to get out of there. My objectivity was completely compromised.
Nevertheless I've put everything down. I won't ever make an investigative journalist but then that's not what I set out to do. I didn't even set out to be a writer. I set out to fall in love and then find a reason for it.
I'm not sure that I did. What I am sure of, however, is that Eliza wasn't the only one suffering such delusions. Apparently it's a problem all over the world, a complex that hasn't received its fancy name yet.
These aren't case studies. No tests have been given, no objectivity applied. I just met people. They would have you believe that they were eccentric but no. Eccentricity, if anything, is a coping mechanism.
It's hard this time of year. All the bright lights and colours lure you outside and then a bitter wind bites down on your every extremity. Besides you have things to buy, food to prepare, promises to keep. And there's such little time. It's dark out before you even know it.
And yet you cling to the magic. There's still a child inside that tells you to go out and find it everywhere. Some people really don't know when to say no to children.
I think I understand now, a part of it at least. I hope I do.
Eliza, I'll admit I was unfair. I'm done with all this. Honestly.
I can't face the New Year without you.